Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Book Review: Creativity, Inc.

Most managers have holes in their knowledge.  Some people are promoted to management based on their skills.  They're the best at what they do in the company, so they are put in charge of other people.  The problem is that these managers have no training in how to handle people.  This is as true of assembly line managers as it is of college presidents.

Other people study management in school, but are ignorant of the processes they are managing.  They are in charge of people who know more than they do, though sometimes they won't admit it.  The world is full of MBAs who are incapable of producing any part of their company's product or service.

This is why there are so many books on business management.  The usual approach is to list things that should be done: Do this and you'll be successful.  Business books often differ in their recommendations, but the authors are convinced that their advice is sound.

Ed Catmull, one of the founders of Pixar and now President of Pixar and Disney Animation, takes a different approach in Creativity, Inc.  As he started out in computer science writing software, he is analytical about solving problems.  However, rather than declare the right way to do things, Catmull instead writes about things to beware of, including things that are unknowable.

Don't measure people by their current skills, but by how much they can grow.  Don't be afraid to hire people smarter than you are.  Understand the reasons behind a disagreement rather than focusing on the disagreement itself.  Try to find the causes of fear in an organization and root them out.  Don't believe you can prevent all errors by planning.   Don't punish failure or no one will try anything new.  Don't measure people by their mistakes, but by their ability to fix their mistakes.  Don't let the organizational structure prevent communication between departments and people.  Don't let one department's agenda override other agendas.  Don't confuse the process with the goal.

Catmull writes about the above using examples from his own career and from Pixar.  On the surface, it reads as if Pixar has managed to overcome problems common to large organizations and has found ways to encourage the staff to focus on the success of the company.   But while Catmull is not shy about Pixar's failures and close calls, I think that there's a gap between the Pixar of this book and the Pixar of reality.

For instance, Catmull talks about having to keep product moving through the pipeline in order to use the staff efficiently, but the need to "feed the beast" in his words often results in going with the tried and true rather than taking chances on new ideas.  As an example, he mentions The Lion King 1 1/2.  "This kind of thinking yields predictable, unoriginal fare because it prevents the kind of organic ferment that fuels true inspiration."  However, Pixar is as invested in sequels these days as any other animation studio.

At times, Catmull is disingenuous.  He implies that Pixar's influence was responsible for the crew of The Princess and the Frog taking a research trip to Louisiana, when in fact Disney had been making research trips for earlier films like The Lion King and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  He gives credit to a Pixar developer for giving his crew time to pursue personal projects at work, while Google was widely reported to have been doing this for years.

Catmull praises Steve Jobs' design of Pixar's building, saying that it was constructed to force people from different departments to interact with each other.  Yet he also discusses a 2013 internal event called Notes Day, and one of the emails Catmull received after it was over said, "I met new people, got completely new points of view, and learned what other departments struggle with and succeed with."  Clearly, the geography of Pixar's building was not enough to fulfill Jobs' intention.

There is also a bit of a Pollyanna attitude.  While there are undoubtedly personal and legal reasons to avoid speaking about some staffing issues in specific terms, the pain and disruption of firings and layoffs is glossed over.  With one exception, the fate of the crew of Circle 7, the studio Disney created to do its own Pixar sequels, goes unmentioned.  There's nothing about the opening and closing of Pixar's Vancouver studio, either.

Catmull implies that directors are only replaced when stories are not progressing or when a director loses the confidence of the crew.  While no replaced directors are mentioned by name, it leaves a shadow over the heads of Jan Pinkava, Brenda Chapman and others who are criticized by implication, but without specifics and without the ability to refute the charges.

Catmull talks about personally delivering bonus cheques to each crew member on Tangled, talking about how important it was to acknowledge each person's contribution to the film.  And yet, after Frozen, now the most financially successful animated film in Disney history, those people laid off after completion have been denied bonus cheques though they contributed as much to the film as the people who were retained.  Disney will undoubtedly rehire some of these people in the future, and their commitment to future projects will be tempered by a knowing cynicism.  So much for team building.

There is much that is valuable in this book.  However, the contradictions in this book underline that no company is perfect and no matter how hard managers try to avoid or eliminate problems, there will always be some.  Catmull is to be praised for acknowledging this, but like everyone else, he's unaware of some of his own mistakes and blind spots.

Don't Pitch to Buyers, Pitch to the Audience - Addendum 2

Courtesy of student Luke Coleman, here is a series of articles by Disney character designer Chris Oatley entitled "Will Your Personal Project Make Money?"  The articles describe a variety of motivations for doing personal work besides income, and all of them are great reasons for taking your work directly to the audience.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Don't Pitch to Buyers, Pitch to the Audience - Addendum

I'd like to thank a commenter named Raff who pointed me to this Patton Oswalt speech given at the Just for Laughs festival in Montreal in 2012.

I envy stand-up comedians for two reasons.  First, they get to deliver their work in real time, as opposed to animators who work for weeks, months or years before it reaches an audience.  Second, there is nothing separating a comedian and the audience.  Artists who work on features can sit in a theatre and view their work with an audience, but artists who work in TV or games don't get that chance.  They only get an abstracted version of the audience in for form of ratings or financial grosses.  Those are pretty cold compared to seeing and feeling people respond in person.

Oswalt's speech covers many of the same points as this series of articles.  As Oswalt is better known and more successful than me, maybe his words will carry more weight than mine.  The point is that creative people in many fields are realizing that the old structure is obsolete and that there are opportunities out there for anyone who chooses to pursue them.

(And there's one more addendum.)

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Don't Pitch to Buyers, Pitch to the Audience - Part Six

Part 1 is here.  Part 2 is here.  Part 3 is here.  Part 4 is here.  Part 5 is here.

What do you love more, your idea or animation?  This is not an idle question.  When it comes to producing something fast and cheap, animation isn't high on the list.  It takes time, and in the current media environment, the audience wants a steady stream of new material or it will lose interest and move on.

The skills used to make animated films -- the ability to write, design, draw and stage situations -- can be applied to other things.  When animation professionals do personal work, it is often in some other medium.

When Bob Clampett left Warner Bros. animation to work in television in the early years, he knew that he could not produce animation fast and cheap enough to keep up with a television schedule.  Instead, he took his sensibility and gave it to the audience in the form of a puppet show, Time for Beany.

Animator Mike Kunkel took his ideas and turned them into a comic book series called Herobear and the Kid.

Storyboard artist Katie Rice does a webcomic called Camp Weedonwantcha.  Her site is a good example of how to interact with fans and earn money. 

Storyboard artist Vera Brosgal created a graphic novel called Anya's Ghost.

Chris Sanders and Dean Yeagle, both directors and animators, have published sketchbooks of their work.

Character designer and animator Tony Fucile does children's books.

Designers Bobby Chiu and Kay Acedera sell prints and have also created a motion comic called Niko and the Sword of Light.

Should an idea prove successful, it can always be done as animation at a later date.  Former Disney animator Cyril Pedrosa just sold the film rights to his graphic novel Three Shadows.  There's also Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis.

There are more opportunities available now to reach an audience and generate income than have ever existed.  That's not to say it is easy.  Creating work that is popular is hard.  Most creations simply don't generate much interest.

However, having experienced pitching to business people and having sold a series that lasted for 52 episodes, I felt that my vision for Monster By Mistake was compromised.  Having lost ownership in exchange for getting the show produced, my connection to my creation was severed.  While Monster By Mistake is probably still running somewhere in the world, the story for me and the characters is over.

Some may feel that my experience has put too much of a negative outlook on pitching to studios or broadcasters.  If there's someone out there who sold a show, got it to an audience, and still feels creatively and financially satisfied, I'd be happy to give them space here to provide an alternate viewpoint.

I'm not naive enough (or egotistical enough) to think that this series of articles will change anything.  People will still continue to pitch.  However, if you are someone with ideas that you'd like to bring to audiences, think about my advice.

Keep ownership of your work.  Nobody will care about it as much as you, so you're the only one who can protect the heart and soul of your idea.  Get it to an audience as quickly and cheaply as possible and take audience feedback seriously, even if the feedback is negative or indifferent.  Like it or not, success depends on the audience.

If you can satisfy an audience, monetize it.  Even if you can't earn enough to live on, it's a nice supplement to your day job and will prevent your income from ever dropping to zero if you are unemployed.

Until an audience has passed judgment on your work, the value of your idea is unknown.  If you choose to do business with a larger company without proof of value, that puts you at a great disadvantage.  You never want to be negotiating from a position of weakness.  That will lead to creative and financial unhappiness.

The history of film, animation, comics and music are littered with stories of creators who were taken advantage of.  It will continue to happen as long as creators let it happen.  If you are a creator, educate yourself.  If you're going to pitch to companies, get yourself a good entertainment lawyer and don't let your desire for a sale blind you to what's in your long-term interest.

Companies don't create hits, people do.  Don't ever forget that, even if many companies have.

(Thanks to readers, there's an addendum.  And another addendum.)

Friday, April 11, 2014

Don't Pitch to Buyers, Pitch to the Audience - Part Five

Part 1 is here.  Part 2 is here.  Part 3 is here.  Part 4 is here.

Simon's Cat was an accident.  Simon Tofield created the initial short as a way of learning a software package.  When he was done, he put it on his reel.  Somebody saw it on his reel and uploaded it to YouTube.  While it is a horrible thing to use an artist's work without permission, in this case it turned into a blessing.

After six years, that initial short has now been viewed more than 48 million times.  The Simon's Cat channel on YouTube has almost 3 million subscribers.   There are now dozens of Simon's Cat shorts available for free.  How is Tofield making money from this?

First, there is advertising.  YouTube is owned by Google and Google places ads and splits the revenue with Tofield.  Then there is merchandise.  Simonscat.com has a shop where you will find all sorts of merchandise for sale, including books, calendars, cat products, T-shirts, fine art prints, ceramics and kitchen items.  There are mobile games available through the iTunes app store.  The books are also available through Amazon.  The site has room for fans to upload pictures of their own cats, so there's user generated content helping to keep the site fresh.

Simon Tofield is doing many of the things mentioned in these articles.  He's built the films around a continuing character.  The shorts are comparatively fast and cheap to produce.  There is no colour.  There is no dialogue, so the films can be understood internationally without subtitles or dubbing.  There is no music except over the main title and that gets re-used.  The films are short, usually less than three minutes and sometimes less than two.

He uses Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Pinterest to stay connected to his audience and let them know when something new is available.

Tofield has taken advantage of another thing: an existing community.  Millions of people have cats as pets.  They are a ready-made audience for these cartoons.  It is far easier to aim a work at an already existing audience than it is to try to build an audience from scratch.  Creators should examine their own lives and see if they are part of some community besides art and animation.  Does a creator play a sport, collect something, have worked in a particular business, etc?  If so, the knowledge and experience in this area makes a creator qualified to talk to an audience of people with similar experiences.  That audience may be large enough to provide a living.

These articles conclude here.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Don't Pitch to Buyers, Pitch to the Audience - Part Four

Part 1 is here.  Part 2 is here.  Part 3 is here.

Younger people don't realize what an opportunity the internet represents.  Yes, everyone is using Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, Twitter, etc. to share things with friends, but the internet is the largest audience ever assembled.  It dwarfs network television at its peak.

Before the internet, there were many gatekeepers between creators and the audience.  Those gatekeepers controlled infrastructures that were necessary to get work to the public.  Because those infrastructures were expensive and because they had limited bandwidth, the gatekeepers were picky.  Only ideas that would appeal to a wide audience and had the largest profit potential were accepted.

If you wanted the world to read your writing, you had to find somebody to publish it.  That meant printing copies and distributing them to retail outlets, which required presses, trucks, and affiliations with retailers who were willing to take your product.

If you wanted the world to see your movie, assuming you had the money to produce it, you needed a distributor to make prints, ship them to theatres, collect the money and return the prints when the screenings were over. 

If you wanted the world to see your TV show, you had to find a network with millions of dollars of equipment willing to broadcast your work nationally or a distributor who would sell your show to individual TV stations.

Those things are no longer necessary.  This week, my blog has been read in over 15 countries and it cost me nothing.  The internet infrastructure is more far-reaching than any that's existed in history and is also less expensive.  There's never been an easier time to get your work in front of the audience.

Of course, the audience has to know about it.  Marketing and monetizing your work are the great challenges, but the distribution challenge no longer exists.  Computers and software have also greatly reduced production costs.  No one can stop you from making your work public.  That wasn't true 20 years ago.

It takes time to build an audience, but everyone with internet access has a network of friends, no matter how small, and that's a starting point.  Building that audience takes patience and persistence, but you'll need those two qualities even if you're pitching to buyers.

From the first day you bring your work to the audience, you should have something to sell.  The difference between a hobby and a business is income.  There's nothing wrong with hobbies; they bring great satisfaction.  However, if you've considered pitching, then you've been looking for income and you might as well be looking for income on the net.

Maybe you'll charge for your work.  Maybe you'll finance by selling advertising.  Maybe you'll give the work away and sell merchandise based on the work.  Maybe you'll charge for special access to you or to your work in progress.  There are multiple potential revenue streams.

The internet is full of companies looking to service creators.  Topatoco.com serves successful webcomics creators by taking care of their merchandise creation and sales.  There are suppliers that will make custom T-shirts, posters, coffee mugs, etc. in small quantities for you.  There are online stores like etsy or ebay that will host your merchandise.
Here's a Frazetta image on a phone cover.  It sells for $18 U.S.  The image is over 40 years old but is still generating revenue for the Frazetta estate.  That's the benefit of retaining ownership.

There are fundraising sites like Kickstarter, IndieGoGo or Patreon that are places to raise money for specific projects or for ongoing support.  These sites are best used to monetize an existing audience rather than build an audience.  For example, Dick Figures, an existing animated web series, raised $313,412 on Kickstarter to make a longer version.

 Just as there are companies that will create merchandise and sell it for you, there are now companies that will help to service Kickstarter pitches.

Building and monetizing an audience are not simple things and they have no instant solutions.  Two books that I would recommend are The $100 Startup and How to Make Webcomics.  While neither applies directly to animation, both books are very practical about how to get started with limited resources.  The webcomics book is an excellent guide to using the web for marketing, distribution and sales and is written by four cartoonists who are making their living from their creations.

Their webcomics model is being used in animation.  I'll cover that when this is continued.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Don't Pitch to Buyers, Pitch to the Audience - Part Three

Part 1 is here.  Part 2 is here.

If the audience is the only thing that can create a success, creators have to pitch to the audience.  That means taking risks.

Seth Godin is a best selling author who writes and blogs about marketing.  He asks, "But what if I fail?"  His response is, "You will.  The answer to the what if question is you will. A better question might be 'after I fail, what then?'  Well, if you've chosen well, after you fail you will be one step closer to succeeding and you will be wiser and stronger and you almost certainly will be more respected by all of those that are afraid to try."

Aza Raskin, a designer at Firefox says, "Your first try will be wrong.  Budget and design for it."  That quote comes from a book called Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure.

Most ideas fail.  Most books are not best sellers.  Most movies don't gross $100 million.  Most TV shows don't last beyond one season.  With odds like this, what's the best way forward?  The answer is to fail fast and cheap.

If you spend years on something and the audience doesn't like it, you've wasted years.  If you spend a lot of money on something and the audience doesn't like it, it's cost you a lot.  The faster and cheaper you can get your idea in front of an audience, the more likely you are to survive the failure and come back with something better.  It may be a revision of your original idea or it may be something wholly new, but it will be closer to what the audience wants.

This goes against the grain of our fantasies.  The dream is that the idea is hailed as brilliant and is embraced by the audience, catapulting the creator to fame and fortune.  While that's a lovely thought, the reality is different.

Everyone reading this has heard of Walt Disney, Jim Henson and Steve Jobs.

Compare the quality of the Laugh-O-Grams, Disney's earliest work, to his acknowledged classics.

Jim Henson began on local TV and did 10 second commercials for coffee that were primitive compared to The Muppet Show or The Dark Crystal.

The Apple II computer was large and slow.  Certainly it could not compete with the smart phone that you may be using to read this.

In each case, these creators started with something basic and kept tuning it and improving it through audience feedback.  Each of them had failures along the way and their best work took decades to develop. It would not have been possible without satisfying an audience from the start and growing their audience as their work became more sophisticated.

None of us may ever equal Disney, Henson or Jobs, but their path is far more typical than the overnight success.  The fact is that creating something that an audience likes is hard.  Sustaining it while you grow a business around it is at least as hard and is going to take time.

Pitching to a buyer also takes time.  Companies are famously slow for making decisions.  Even with a sale, it sometimes takes years to complete financing for a film or TV series.   While you wait for the money, there is still no proof that the audience will like your idea.  Furthermore, in selling the idea, you've lost control of your creation and each additional investor may push the idea farther from what you want.

Neither path is simple or easy, but only one of them leaves you in charge.

To be continued.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Don't Pitch to Buyers, Pitch to the Audience - Part Two

Part 1 is here.

Screenwriter and novelist William Goldman says, "In Hollywood, nobody knows anything."  By this he means that nobody knows what's good until the audience has its say.  Comedian Jerry Seinfeld says, "Audiences will teach you what's funny about you."

While business people will judge your ideas, their judgment is just a guess until the audience gets a look.  While a creator may feel strongly about an idea, that feeling is no better than a guess as well.  The success or failure of an idea rests with the audience and until its judgment is known, the outcome is just speculation.

Creators should  focus on pleasing audiences rather than focus on pleasing buyers.  If you want to date someone, approach the person you want to date.  Why spend time romancing the person's parents?  They may love you, but they can't force their son or daughter to love you.

What engages the audience and what do they remember?  Characters.  People are still creating stories about Hercules and Robin Hood.  Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan are now more than a hundred years old, yet they still have name value and are the basis for movies and TV shows.  Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Scooby Doo, Homer Simpson, and Spongebob Squarepants are characters created for animation that are recognizable to the average person.

Chris Meledandri, producer of Ice Age and the Despicable Me films says, "We start with strong characters and build the movie from there."

At the talk I gave at Animatic T.O, I showed stills from four films that won Best Animated Short at the Oscars since the year 2000.  Nobody in an audience made up of animation professionals and students recognized all four films.  There's no chance that a person on the street would.  While these films tell engaging stories, none of them create characters that are meant to live beyond the film.  Characters are more memorable than stories.  (For the record, the films were Father and Daughter, The Moon and the Son, The House of Small Cubes and The Lost Thing.)

It's important to understand that just as creators and business people see the world differently, so do artists and the average audience.  Artists love looking at art.  Every artist has a shelf full of books whose images serve as inspiration and that provide hours of browsing pleasure.  It's a hard truth, but audiences don't care about art or animation.  They want characters that entertain them.  Want proof?
Even beginning artists can draw and animate as well as South Park.  The majority of professionals can draw and animate better.  But audiences are not interested in a high level of craft unless it is accompanied by something that entertains them.  Given a choice between art and entertainment, entertainment wins.

To be continued.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Don't Pitch to Buyers, Pitch to the Audience - Part One

(Update:  The video of the talk is now online here.)

In March, I gave a talk at Animatic T.O, a monthly lecture series about animation started by Barry Sanders and now continued by Andrew Murray as Barry has moved to Halifax.  What follows is an expansion of that talk with the opportunity to offer links.

The whole notion of pitching is an odd one that only exists due to economic circumstances.  People working in media that are inexpensive can go straight to the finished product.  A painter doesn't have to describe the colour palette and the composition of a work, he or she just paints it and shows the final image.  A singer doesn't describe how a song will sound, he or she just sings it.  Animation and other film creators are stuck pitching because creating the finished work is too expensive and time consuming to allow a person to make it without help.

Unfortunately, a pitch is a poor substitute for the finished product for a variety of reasons.  The ability to pitch is a wholly separate skill from the creation of ideas.  Extraverts have an advantage in pitching over introverts, but either type of person can have good ideas.  Furthermore, there are so many variables between an idea and the finished product that a great idea can result in disappointment.  Too much depends on the budget, the schedule, the crew, input from investors and chance.  We are all familiar with movies that look like they will be great before they're released but end up as failures.

There is another odd aspect to pitching.  The person with the ideas doesn't get paid to pitch, but the person without ideas gets paid to listen.  Yet without people willing to pitch for free, the listener has no job.  It's sort of backwards.

Often, the people taking pitches have no history of creating anything.  They have never written, drawn, performed or directed anything for an audience, yet they are the ones sitting in judgment of someone who most likely has.  If the people taking pitches were genuinely creative, they would be creating their own projects for the company and would not have to listen to ideas from anyone else.

Most ideas never reach an audience because the potential buyer says no.   Anyone who has pitched knows that rejections vastly outnumber positive responses.  Should an idea be accepted, it rarely goes into full production.  Usually there is the interim step of development, where the buyer pays the creator a small sum to refine the project further.  The money is not enough to live on, so the creator has to split his or her attention between a day job to pay the bills and refining the idea.

Should an idea go into production, the creator will most likely lose ownership of it and will have to negotiate screen credit, a role in the production, and financial compensation.  This is all complicated by what's known as Hollywood accounting, where projects that are earning money never seem to make a profit.

With the exception of Hollywood accounting, which is a legal form of theft, there aren't any bad guys.  While a creator sees a work as polished and developed, the buyers see it as raw material to be shaped to their own needs.  Buyers have no reservations about changing a work in ways that they think will make it more successful.  As animation requires a hefty investment, they are simply trying to reduce their risk and increase their profits.  Unfortunately, this usually means bending a work towards something that is already successful, meaning that it imitates something else, and the changes are possibly ones that the creator disagrees with.

Steven Pressfield is the author of the novel The Legend of Bagger Vance.  He was hired to write the screenplay, but when Robert Redford got involved with the film, Pressfield was fired so that another screenwriter could be brought in.  Pressfield understood.  In his book, The Authentic Swing, he writes, "The original writer is a pain in the ass.  He has ideas.  He has a point of view.  And the worst part is he believes he possess the moral authority to give voice to these ideas.  You have to get rid of the original writer."

Furthermore, "The writer is not allowed to complain.  You made the deal, dude.  You cashed the check.  Be grateful and shut up."

The key phrase here is "moral authority."  Creators feel that they, more than anyone else, have the right to shape the material.  After all, they created it.  Business people, having taken ownership and invested money, feel that they should be in control.  By selling the rights, the seller has given up the legal right to have a say.  We may agree that the creator has "moral authority," but the owners and the legal system recognize no such thing.

Once a creator gives up ownership, there's more at stake than "moral authority."  When a project is finished, the creator can't continue to work with the characters or other elements without permission from the owners.  I heard an interview with Pete Williams, the creator of the animated MTV series Undergrads, on the Guys with Pencils podcast.  Williams is attempting to revive the series, but because MTV owns it, he has to negotiate to get permission.  Even though the show was his idea, MTV has the right to charge Williams a license fee for trying to revive something he created but they own.  It's strange when you need permission and have to pay to work on something that was your idea to begin with.

If the owners decide to revive a project in the future, they're under no obligation to get the creator involved.  While I don't know specifics, Van Partible, the creator of Johnny Bravo, was not involved with seasons 2 or 3 of the show he created.  In superhero comics, it's fairly standard for the creators of a series to be replaced by new writers and artists in order to maintain sales.

While a creator may have a good personal relationship with the buyer, there's no guarantee that the buyer will remain in place.  Company managements change, companies merge or get sold.  It's possible that nobody involved with the original purchase will be around by the time a project is completed.  This is why it is so important to negotiate a creator's legal relationship with the buyer.  As Sam Goldwyn said, a verbal contract isn't worth the paper it's printed on.

Does pitching have an upside?  Yes it does.  Pitching gives you the opportunity to meet people in positions of authority.  While a creator is probably surrounded by a community of other writers or artists, they're less likely to have relationships with business people.  Enlarging your network is always a positive thing.  Pitching may lead to job opportunities if the people you are pitching to are impressed by you, even if they don't like your idea.

But if you really care about your idea, I believe you shouldn't pitch it to buyers.  If you get someone interested, it will be altered beyond your control and at best, you will have to share ownership and will most likely lose it completely,

To be continued.